Phantom Father

Stories of Forgiveness

My father’s disappearance went almost completely unnoticed by us children. Though he had been a constant in our life—always present, always there—when he didn’t live under the same roof, we for a brief time assumed he was around the corner, just out of eyesight. Maybe he had to work late. Perhaps he was doing chores downstairs. There was no other place for him to be than home.

What began as a weekend away to “figure things out” had developed into moving out for good.

By Monday, what began as a weekend away to “figure things out” had developed into moving out for good. I’m not certain he returned for all of his belongings. Despite being a town away, despite still seeing us on the occasional weekend, he was a part of our lives only to the extent that we visited him. Gone. In every scene, there was a reminder he was missing from it. And this was true not just of the big moments, like school events or Christmas, but of the smaller ones, like watching fathers put an arm around their kid during church, or accidentally setting an extra plate at the dinner table. Everything we saw and did replayed our abandonment. As though a limb had been newly amputated.

Initially the status quo prevailed, as we waited for my father’s eventual and certain return. Life around us continued, just as Dad continued to move on and establish a new life. Weekend visits slowly grew further apart, and birthday and holiday get-togethers gradually became birthday and holiday phone calls, which sometimes became silence.

Every time we saw or spoke with him, Dad would emphasize how he wanted to see us more and lamented that it had been so long since our previous reunion. Over time these statements began to ring more and more false. Bitterness and resentment started to creep in where hope had once resided.

Before my father left, I understood the traditional blueprint of forgiveness: Someone hurts or wrongs you, he or she apologizes, and you accept the apology and forgive, washing your hands of the situation; then both you and the offender grow from the experience. It has the tidiness of a half-hour sitcom: By the end of the program, order is restored to the universe and all is well.

Forgiving my father has been another matter entirely. If I’m being honest, it wasn’t something I did out of obedience and holiness, but rather a last resort, when I was at my wit’s end. I realized there was nothing I could do to restore a relationship I had more of a stake in than he did. It was a low moment for me, involving random and tearful phone calls to my mother, asking her not when Dad stopped caring about us, but if he ever did. Forgiveness was the only way not to give up on him—not to give up on us.

Since that time, forgiving my father has developed into an act of love toward him. I can only guess his motivations, but through the practice of forgiving, I find myself becoming more concerned with his troubles than my own, with a desire to understand and empathize with what he might be going through. I sense a shift in my thinking—from releasing him from the hurt he has caused, to forgiving him because I cannot begin to imagine the sort of struggles he must be dealing with. What would cause someone to do this to his own children? What pain troubles him—perhaps a pain I can’t fathom?

Forgiveness has a way of helping us see past our own pain and understand those who have wronged us. The ongoing act of forgiving my father is in its own way a prayer, a way of caring for his situation and hoping for a better future. The ritual has helped me be a more selfless son, to strive for connection, and to look for the best despite the disappointment.

The most difficult aspect of it all—that there continues to be no resolution—can also be quite beautiful: The story isn’t over. For now, I continue to hope and forgive, hope and forgive, hope and forgive.


Illustration by Jeff Östberg

Related Topics:  Forgiveness

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